Here is the inimitable Jean Chrétien giving a speech for the Liberals. It is an amazing speech. It’s worth watching if you love Chrétien, the Liberal Party, or just good, rousing rhetoric. But it’s also interesting to contrast against the 2011 Liberal campaign, which has been largely a flop with not much in the way of redeeming features.
I understand that Canada is a federation of convenience. I understand that the provinces are extraordinarily diverse demographically, geographically, and culturally. I understand that we have no real unifying national identity to speak of. I understand that Canadian nationalism as it emerged from the World Wars was mostly taken up as an emotional force as a propaganda tool to advance federalism in Quebec. But still — when that old man stands up and declares “Vive le Canada!”, a little tingle runs down my spine, and I want to shake my fist in the air.
A few weeks ago on CBC’s Cross Country Checkup, Rex Murphy went off on a slightly uncharacteristic rant. He complained about the way politics is being done in this country, with parties that carefully section out segments of the population and offer them bribes (I am paraphrasing). His familiar Newfoundland voice echoed with yearning as he wished aloud for a leader with a national vision — a leader who would ask us to vote, not just for which bundle of goodies we believed in, but for a vision of Canada that could inspire us. He evoked a country where the fisherman in Newfoundland cared about the farmers in Saskatchewan and vice-versa. He evoked a country where the employed cared about the unemployed, where the well cared about the sick, and where the old cared about the young. This is the sort of party you could care about, the sort of party you could believe in and support with pride in your heart.
And when Chrétien lists off accomplishments that reflect that sort of Canada — accomplishments like Medicare, Canada Pension, the Charter of Rights, and so many others — your heart can’t help but swell, not as a Liberal, but as a Canadian, that people so far-removed and different from one another could treat each other with such care and respect and dignity.
None of the current leaders are expressing that sort of vision. The reasons for this are anybody’s to guess, but I blame the culture and conventional wisdom of campaign strategists. They’ve got election politics down to a very specific science, with targeted audiences and careful demographic tracking and vote suppression and informed-sounding soundbites. Amid all this careful managing, there’s no room for a vision of Canada like the one Chrétien forged in the furnace of separatism.
The particulars of campaigns are almost meaningless. Everyone knows that election platforms are exercises in creative writing with no real connection to reality, and everyone knows that the actual business of governing contains endless unexpected hoops and hurdles. Beyond the particulars, what matters is vision and priorities. And no one is presenting a vision of Canada that lifts us up and inspires us.
If you want to give a little prayer before May 2nd, pray for politicians with vision and compassion for all the people of Canada. We’ve had really, really good luck over the past century. We’ve taken groups of nations with wildly different interests and we’ve managed to work together and look after one another. In human history, this is a big deal. We need politicians willing to pursue the great challenges of the twenty-first century, the medicares, charters, and official languages of new generations. We need to address the needs of our aboriginal communities. We need a sane energy policy. We need a compassionate foreign policy. But what we need most is a society composed of Canadians invested in helping and supporting one another, in uplifting the disadvantaged, and in working together despite our differences. If our country is one we can be proud of, it’s because we’ve been led by people who believe in those things.